Though they don’t fully cop to the doom metal label, Pallbearer’s website is called PallbearerDoom.com and they play tremendously heavy, guitar-based music. But the thing about the Little Rock four-piece (now featuring new drummer Mark Lierly) is that they deal in dualities, contradictions. On Foundations of Burden, the follow-up to 2012’s debut Sorrow and Extinction, Pallbearer continue to build monstrous riffs that turn out to be gentle giants, with sheer beauty imbuing every guitar layer. Put simply, it’s a lovely album without extremes, the band’s second consecutive record that non-metalheads can love. (Guilty.)
Sorrow and Extinction stretched five songs to 48 minutes, and while Foundations of Burden throws a similar weight with six tracks adding up to 55 minutes (including 12-minute closer “Vanished”), there’s a renewed atmosphere, more pulverizing than that of its predecessor and more nuanced too. Inevitably, thanks are due producer Billy Anderson, who was behind a number of ‘90s metal touchstones and, more recently, albums by Witch Mountain and Agalloch. Talking about Foundations, Anderson has said he’s never worked with more guitar layers at once, and indeed, the six-string infernos of opener “Worlds Apart” and closer “Vanished” more or less make this a doom metal Loveless, if only temporarily.
As a rule of thumb, the bigger the payoff is down the stretch of these songs, the more successful the song is: “Foundations” ultimately scales dizzying heights with a group vocal. Still, with five of the six songs switching up based on their own internal logic (the three-minute “Ashes” is velvety by comparison), smaller bites of the record are the biggest highlights. There’s the squealing, Dimebag Darrell-style soloing in the middle of standout “Watcher in the Dark,” and, hell, even the Rhodes-backed first half of “Ashes” works surprisingly well as a quick breather. (It’s also an American Idol audition relative to the rest of the tracks.)
Frontman Brett Campbell, discouraged by his not-so-secret pitchiness during live performances post-Sorrow, has done some troubleshooting this time around, generally staying within a tighter range and occasionally drawling in a monotone. But none of that’s to say he’s a less endearing presence than he was on Sorrow and Extinction—quite the contrary. In fact, Campbell’s vocals are most penetrating when he sounds most comfortable. He always sounds like he has a purpose, too, even more so than he did on the mortality-themed Sorrow. Campbell shares writing duties with bassist and reformed longhair Joseph D. Rowland, who has called himself “a big drama queen” compared to Campbell, the bigger fan of metaphor. Still, the album is thematically cohesive, with memorable phrases like “monuments turn to rust” and “our shadows wait” presenting ambitious ideas of humanity.
Even though the album is crushing, the band’s penchant for melody is what elevates Foundations of Burden above otherwise comparable records from this year. Not only is the album consistently hooky, the melodies carry a greater sense of function, with the flaring guitars highlighting whichever feeling Campbell is conveying at the time. Foundations of Burden is remarkably consistent that way, a not-so-vulgar display of power from a band working on their own terms and getting scary good at doing so.